7019560 An estimated 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala's decades-long civil war, and an additional 100,000 "disappeared." One group of forensic anthropologists is using technology to help the country come to terms with its past.

Group Works to Identify Remains in Guatemala

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

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CHADWICK: This week, we're going to be taking on a journey to Guatemala. A 19th century visitor from Europe called it the Land of Eternal Spring. Its volcanoes and ancient Mayan ruins and rich native culture makes the place feel mythic even today.

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BRAND: But this country is also defined by suffering. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in a decades-long civil war, and its lingering effect have left 80 percent of the population in poverty.

CHADWICK: Each day this week, we're going to hear stories from people trying to turn that around, applying innovative technologies to solve ancient problems. This series is called Guatemala: Unearthing the Future. And in it, our tech contributor, Xeni Jardin, reports on how technology is changing the Land of the Maya.

BRAND: Today we begin with an effort to heal the human suffering caused by the civil war. The civil war ended 10 years ago, but many survivors are still searching for the remains of their loved ones. And one group is using technology in new ways to reclaim the dead.

Xeni Jardin brings us their story.

XENI JARDIN: In traditional Mayan culture, the dead and the living are in constant communication. But for many thousands of Mayan people in Guatemala, their dead have never been able to rest and neither have their living relatives.

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JARDIN: This woman who survived who survived La Violencia recognizes the remains of a loved one emerging from the earth. The exhumation is being conducted and videotaped by the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala or FAFG. For 12 years, the non-profit has been exhuming clandestine graves that hold victims of political massacres.

Archaeologists and anthropologists with the FAFG work to identify the human remains, record evidence for possible future trials and return the dead home for reburial. After the remains are unearthed, FAFG transports them from the mass gravesites to this Guatemala City building protected by razor wire and armed guards. Inside, FAFG staff huddle over tables covered with human bones.

Ms. RAQUEL BORADEA(ph) (Forensic Anthropologist, FAFG): We have, like, 20 tables here. Every table has a skeleton.

JARDIN: Raquel Boradea is a forensic anthropologist with FAFG. This open-air paddy was a lab where remains are cleaned and analyzed.

Ms. BORADEA: We have two types of people here, forensic anthropologists and people who help to wash every bone.

JARDIN: One woman brushes dirt clumps from a small skull. As the red earth falls away, deep gashes are revealed, indicating that this child may have been struck repeatedly in the head with a machete. A few feet away, anthropologist Patricia Ishcoy(ph) pulls cleaned bone pieces out of a paper envelope. She has been working with FAFG for eight years.

Patricia is sorting remains dug up from a massacre that happened in 1982 in a rural village called Canaquil. Like most who died during the 36-year civil war, these were indigenous people.

Ms. PATRICIA ISHCOY (Forensic Anthropologist, FAFG): (Speaking in foreign language)

JARDIN: Patricia explains that 26 people died: 14 children, 7 women and 6 men. Their skulls were fragmented by bullets. The bones are charred because these people were apparently set on fire after they were shot. Again, Raquel Boradea.

Ms. BORADEA: We put together all the skeletons, like a puzzle, to know what type of trauma is and did you have an entrance or exit gun shot.

JARDIN: Each fragment is marked with an alphanumeric code that ties the remains to a specific massacre. And here's where technology makes a difference. Freddie Gomez(ph) is FAFG's head of information technology.

Mr. FREDDIE GOMEZ (FAFG): If we identify them, we put their name. And if we don't identify them, we put the number of the case that we have and the number of the corpse that we have in that case.

JARDIN: Freddie and his tech team developed software to manage the data they gather, including details from surviving family. Obtaining their testimony can be challenging. In the 1980s, the Guatemalan army conscripted Mayan peasants to act as enforcers in their own villages, and anthropologist Raquel Boradeas says the fear and distrust are still very real.

Ms. BORADEAS: The people were so scared to talk because they lived in the town with the people. And it was - actually they are neighbors of the victims.

JARDIN: While there are efforts to bring those accused of mass murder to trial, Raquel says most surviving relatives are after something more basic.

Ms. BORADEAS: They don't (unintelligible) in justice, actually. They only want to a decent burial. That's it.

JARDIN: A decent burial is the goal, and even the 40 percent that cannot be identified are returned to the community for reburial. For the remains that are identified, the process can take months. DNA tests on bone samples yield a genetic fingerprint that can be digitally compared with the genes of living relatives. It's an essential part of the process, but tech director Freddie Gomez(ph) says there's no DNA lab available to them in the entire country.

Mr. GOMEZ: We send a little piece of a bone to the U.S. with a blood test and figure it out if it's the same DNA that they have.

JARDIN: That can take four months. So the FAFG plans to build a lab of their own here this year. A room nearby is filled with older model PCs. Here anthropologist Oscar Ishpata(ph) is entering data about a corpse.

Mr. OSCAR ISHPATA (Anthropologist, FAFG): (Speaking Spanish)

JARDIN: He is typing in identifying traits such age, sex, height or clothing. Information security is high here. Data is encrypted and backed up onsite and to other locations. The human remains are stored upstairs in large round cardboard boxes, each marked with those identifying codes.

The FAFG is holding more than 900 sets of human remains right now. And law student Gustavo Cosme(ph) watches over most of them stacked in cartons in this rooftop storage room.

Mr. GUSTAVO COSME (Law Student): (Through translator) Here we have 589 boxes. More or less 600 sets of human remains.

JARDIN: Attorneys come here to view evidence when a case does come to criminal trial. But Gustavo explains that the FAFG's greatest success may be in one emptied out corner.

Mr. COSME: (Through translator) This is what we call our dead archive. We call it that because these are cases in which the remains have been returned to their communities.

JARDIN: Just outside this room packed with boxes of bones there's a cluster of half-burned candles on a cement floor. Priests from one Mayan village recently came here to pray for the lab workers' success in identifying their relatives and preparing them for the long journey home.

For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.

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BRAND: There's a slide show and audio tour of the headquarters for the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala at our Web site, npr.org. And starting today, you can download this story and all of Xeni's stories as a podcast. Just click on the podcast link at npr.org.

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And tomorrow, tune in for Xeni's next installment on her series from Guatemala on DAY TO DAY. DAY TO DAY continues.

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